Early Memories of being a Cambridge United fan
It was the excitement of seeing England win the 1966 World Cup just after my ninth birthday that saw the beginnings of my love of football. From the start of the following season, most of my Saturday afternoons were spent with my schoolpals watching the home games of my local team Haverhill Rovers at Hamlet Croft (now, sadly the site of new housing) - alternate weeks would see the first team playing in the Eastern Counties League, and the Reserves playing the following week in the Essex & Suffolk Border League.
Supporting a "proper" team was very much dependent upon copying the popular kids at school, and I was no different. Chelsea became my team, and my dad even got seats for us to go to one or two home games in each of the following few seasons. I wanted to go more regularly, but that was not possible. It was therefore my dad's idea that he take me to watch Cambridge United (just a half-hour drive away), and so it was that in March 1969 we took our seats in the Main Stand at the Abbey Stadium to watch United, then flying high in the Southern League and challenging Hillingdon Borough for top spot. That first game was against Worcester City, with United running out 3-0 winners if I remember correctly. I think Tony Butcher and Bill Cassidy were among the goalscorers. Others in that team included Roly Horrey, Rodney Slack, Dennis Walker, Robin Hardy, Gerry Baker and Terry Eades, but Bill "Cass" Cassidy became my first favourite player.
From that point I was absolutely hooked, and pressured my dad into taking me to as many games as possible as United homed in on winning the league in May 1969. The title was clinched on the final day with a 3-0 win against Kettering, pipping Hillingdon by a single point. Tony Butcher scored a hat-trick, in front of over 6,000 fans. From my vantage point in the Main Stand, I could see many of those fans coming on the pitch at the end of the game to celebrate. I loved it! In those days, the top non-league teams were able to join the bottom four teams from Division Four in attempting to be elected/re-elected into the Football League. United fell just short by twelve votes that season, but through intense lobbying by the United directors the result would be different twelve months later!
The following season was equally successful, the signing of striker George Harris proving a master stroke. I remember that for Christmas 1969, my mum had knitted me a black & amber scarf for me to wear at United games - however at around that time the team had changed to an all-white kit! It wouldn't be until the 72/73 season that they reverted to black & amber colours, and I have continued to wear my original knitted scarf to this day, despite my wife shrinking it in the wash!
The 1969/70 title challenge was between United and Yeovil, and United went into the final game at home to Margate still needing a win to clinch the Southern League title for a second time. However, there was a complication in that a friendly had been arranged with Chelsea for the night before, being part of the transfer agreement that had seen Ian Hutchinson transferred by United to the Londoners two years previously. I remember being crammed into the standing area between the Main Stand (which then only extended to the halfway line) and the Newmarket Road end, and getting the autograph of Chelsea striker Tommy Baldwin as the Chelsea team made their way from the team bus to the changing rooms. The crowd was a record 14,000, with fans taking every vantage point, including sitting on the top of the wall behind the Allotments End and climbing on floodlight pylons - no health & safety issues in those days! Chelsea had won the FA Cup just two days previously in a replay against Leeds, and the team (most of whom had played in the replay) proudly paraded the cup in a lap of honour around the ground before the game. In view of the importance of the game against Margate 24 hours later, United only played the first 45 minutes, being replaced by a Chelsea reserve side in the second half.
The Margate game the following day was very tense, remaining goalless until ten minutes from the end when George Harris put United in front with a penalty at the Allotments End. I think it was Bill Cassidy who scored a second to clinch the game and the championship, with fans again streaming onto the pitch at the final whistle in celebration. And so that summer United went into the re-election vote with strong expectations, that turned out to be fully justified as they beat Bradford Park Avenue by 14 votes and hence were elected to the Football League for the first time in the club's history.
When the fixtures for the historic first Football League season were published, I was excited to note that United would be home to Lincoln City on the opening day. However, I was brought down to earth with a bump when I realised that the date of that first game came half way through a family holiday to Devon, staying with my aunt and uncle. I think my dad realised my disappointment, and decided to take me to watch Exeter City v Scunthorpe instead - I tried to look pleased, but I think I spent the whole game wondering how The U's were getting on!
I managed to see about a dozen home games in that first season in Division 4, but only Saturday matches as I was not allowed out on "school night". In the following 71/72 season, for games that my dad couldn't attend I was allowed to go on the bus from Haverhill to games on my own, but only if I promised not to stand behind the Newmarket Road end, as my dad said the spectators there were a bit rowdy! The Allotments End therefore became my regular vantage point, seeing my new favourite player Brian Greenhalgh score quite a number of goals, including four in a 6-0 thrashing of Darlington. Still no midweek games, though!
By the time the 72/73 season got underway, I had persuaded my best mate Martin Page to come along with me on the bus to home games, and this meant my parents were a bit more relaxed about me going to midweek games. We would watch the games by standing behind whichever goal United were attacking, changing ends at half-time by walking behind the Main Stand. That season saw United make a strong push for promotion, and the team's form gave me & Martin the encouragement to go to an away game at Colchester (a 1-0 win with a Bobby Ross goal), picking up the supporters coach when it came through Haverhill. The season's climax though was the final game, at home to Mansfield, knowing that the winners would gain promotion to Division 3, with a draw being of no use to either side. There were no play-offs in those days, of course.
The Mansfield game attracted a crowd of over 11,500, which I believe is still (to this day) a club record since entering the league. Me and Martin, along with another good mate David Ince, decided to make a day of it and had gone to Fenners in the morning to see Cambridge University play cricket against Yorkshire, before we all made our way to the Abbey. The size of the crowd meant there could be no half-time change of ends for us fans, and so because of some "disturbances" in the Newmarket Road end with some Mansfield interlopers we watched the game from the Allotments End. I can remember the tension of Mansfield taking the lead twice (sandwiching a Ronnie Walton goal) before Bobby Ross scored a equalising penalty just before half-time to tie the game up at 2-2, and then the ecstacy of Ronnie Walton slamming in the winning goal right in front of us in the second half. As the final minutes ticked away oh so slowly, we made our way down to the front of the terracing and over the front barrier in readiness for a pitch invasion, which actually happened prematurely when some of us (me included!) mistook the referee's whistle for an offside decision to be the final whistle! We all had to sheepishly retreat off the pitch to enable the match to resume, only for a proper invasion just a few moments later when the final whistle was finally blown. Pandemonium on the pitch with thousands of fans trying to mob the U's players - I still have a press cutting taken from the Cambridge Evening News which includes a photo of Brian Greenhalgh being chaired off the pitch , and I'm captured in that photo joining in chants of "Greenhalgh, Greenhalgh!"
So those are my early memories of following this very special club through all the ups and downs that have followed in the past half century. Although none of us of course wanted those "downs", it is I believe by having the bad times that enable us to appreciate so much more when the good times come - promotions, Wembley wins, getting to the FA Cup quarter finals twice, almost getting into the Premier League, play-off wins, and drawing against Manchester United followed by being amongst 9,000 U's fans at the replay at Old Trafford.
Come on you U's!!!
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I'm the living embodiment of the spirit of the U's, and I'll be blogging whenever I've got news for you, as long as I don't miss my tea.